Joe Biden's Lobbyist Money Pledge Is a Farce

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Like his rivals, Joe Biden is swearing off donations from corporate lobbyists and corporate PACs, according to Politico. But this is hard to reconcile with the news that Biden kicked off his campaign for president yesterday with a fundraiser packed with corporate lobbyists and Republican donors, at the home of Comcast’s head of lobbying.

According to the Intercept, some registered lobbyists were on the host committee. We won’t know if those individuals actually gave money until the end of the next FEC reporting period; it could be like Beto O’Rourke’s big money fundraiser from this week, where those who wanted to attend the “host committee reception” were asked to raise $25,000 from their rich friends. Bundled donations raised by lobbyists are also reported separately to the FEC.

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Either way, I would say Joe is not following the spirit of his pledge.

This is true in more ways than one. According to Politico, a key exception for lobbyist donors rests on the laughable legal standard for who counts as a lobbyist (all emphasis added):

“If Biden runs, I’ll be working as much as time allows for him,” Eizenstat said in an interview before the former vice president announced his bid. Eizenstat, a senior counsel at the law and lobbying firm Covington & Burling who was registered to lobby as recently as last year, said he didn’t consider himself a lobbyist and hadn’t contacted a member of Congress in years.

David Cohen, the Comcast head of lobbying who hosted Biden’s fundraiser, is also not a registered lobbyist. Lobbyists only have to register as lobbyists if they spend more than 20 percent of their time lobbying or make at least two contacts with government officials. “Shadow lobbying,” where “government relations” staffers do lobbying without registering, has risen in the last decade, though since Trump took office more lobbyists are officially lobbying again.

Apparently, however, there are still people who have officially lobbied more recently than I changed my Brita filter out there telling Politico officials with a straight face that they aren’t lobbyists. Whatever!

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To give credit to Politico, the article has some good, subtle owns of its sources, such as this:

“He’s not a K Street guy,” said Joel Johnson, a longtime Democratic lobbyist who gave $2,300 to Biden’s last presidential campaign in 2007.

Still, Biden’s staff “was always professional and available and open-minded” about hearing out lobbyists, Johnson said.

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Biden took more than $6 million from lawyers and law firms during his time as a Senator, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Biden didn’t respond to Politico’s request for comment.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter what Joel Lobbyist says. What matters is whether the media and primary voters are successful in holding Biden accountable for essentially lying to them—telling them that he won’t take lobbyist money while enjoying the benefits of fundraisers hosted by lobbyists. This is not a legal question, but a political one; there are no points for following the letter but not the spirit of your pledge. It’s a question of whether voters feel you’ve followed it, and whether the media can fairly say, “Hey, aren’t you full of shit on this?”

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An outward aversion to corporate lobbyists and Super PACs in Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign is the chief reason why so many Democratic candidates took this pledge in the first place. If Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—Biden’s chief rivals for the nomination from the left—have any sense, they’ll make the blatant hypocrisy of the former vice president and “Senator from MBNA” an issue he can’t just ignore.

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About the author

Libby Watson

Splinter politics writer. libby.watson@splinternews.com